Crime fiction is as popular with writers as it is readers. Fans of the genre often try their hand at writing the gripping noir and twisting tales they love. But writing crime fiction comes with its own unique challenges as crime readers demand tight plots, dark settings and gripping mysteries like no other.
This comprehensive list of 25 crime writing tips will help you craft great crime fiction, using genre best practices as well as specific advice from National Centre for Writing course tutors. Find out more about our Introduction to Crime Writing course here →
1. Read crime
If you think this is obvious, then you’re probably already doing this. However, it’s not rare to find someone who wants to write a particular genre, but isn’t reading it. And in case it’s not obvious, you need to immerse yourself in the genre – you need to understand the style, the language, the tropes, the themes, the plot devices, the characters and how the genre has changed over time so that you can not only write great crime fiction, but work on what you can bring to the genre to make it your own.
Read like a writer: what do you like, and why? What works and why? What doesn’t? And why? Importantly ask yourself, how would I do this differently?
Read crime’s many sub-genres: from the hard-boiled thrillers of Raymond Chandler to cosy mystery and the suburban crime stories of Harlan Coban.
2. Read the greats
In addition to reading the writers you like, read the genre’s greats – the titans of crime. For example, while spy thrillers may not be your cup of tea, reading John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is essential reading for a writer of crime. You may consider a Miss Marple too twee for you, but Agatha Christie has much to teach us about the genre.
Think about how each book uses point of view, interesting characters, plot twists and cliffhangers. Crime fiction, more than other genres, often has a formula. As such it’s essential to understand that formula and its variations and how you can bring your own twist to your tales.
The Crime Writer’s Association details the top 10 crime novels of all time as:
- The Daughter of Time – Josephine Tey (1951)
- The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler (1939)
- The Spy Who Came In From the Cold – John le Carré (1963)
- Gaudy Night – Dorothy L. Sayers (1935)
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie (1926)
- Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier (1938)
- Farewell My Lovely – Raymond Chandler (1940)
- The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins (1868)
- The IPCRESS File – Len Deighton (1962)
- The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett (1930)
3. Read the current heroes of crime
It is interesting to note how few of today’s writers have yet to make the top ten list. Here are a few of today’s most popular crime authors:
- Lee Child
- Harlan Coben
- Peter James
- Martina Cole
- James Patterson
- John Grisham
- Michael Connolly
- Ann Cleeves
- Patricia Cornwell
- Val McDermid.
4. Read the new heroes of crime fiction
And finally, don’t just read the big names, find out who is new and hot. Who’s bringing something new to the genre? Who is the Ian Rankin of tomorrow? This is particularly important if you want to get published, as editors will be looking for that new, exciting ‘something’, not that familiar ‘something’ that made Kathleen Reichs’ work bestselling.
5. Take a course in writing crime fiction
Figuring out how to write great crime from blogs and extensive reading may work for some new writers, but few things are as effective as a purpose-built course for acquiring the specific knowledge and skills needed to write great crime fiction. Some people take a general fiction course which will, of course, give you the generic rules of fiction, but, because crime fiction has so many particularities, a crime course will provide particular insight into the art of twists, climaxes, tying up loose ends and watertight plotting.
Learning is rarely a one-way thing: we will have questions and queries about the received wisdom as well as questions about our own work. This is why tutored courses in particular are great for learning how to write crime fiction, but also building your own writing routine.
There are lots of types and formats of course available, but with so much being accessible online today, there are some fantastic online courses which also include 1-2-1 tutor feedback, such as our Introduction to Crime Writing course – tutored by established crime writers such as Julia Crouch. The course includes modules on The Elements Of A Crime Story; Ethics and Edits; Genre and Detail; and Endearing Monsters.
6. Start with the crime
Great stories usually make a ‘promise’ to the reader: the protagonist will fall in love, find the gold, solve the mystery. It is the carrot on the end of the stick. This promise is what drives a reader through a story – and helps them ride out its less dynamic parts.
The crime itself will ignite your plot and drive the narrative. This is why many writers open with the crime, to grip readers from the off. The promise of crime is that the reader will get to find out whodunnit – and how and why. As one of the most popular fiction genres, this promise is a compelling one.
Great fiction is about characters trying to achieve something (and usually failing to until the end). Characters with no aims are boring. By introducing the crime at the beginning, we immediately give our protagonist an aim.
Get into the heads of the victim, the killer – witness as the former dies. Make it real, make it terrifying. This will help to create a monster and build sympathy for the victim, thereby raising the stakes: the more gruesome the murder, the more important it is to catch the killer. And this will be reflected in your reader’s need to keep reading.
7. Use conflict
National Centre for Writing crime course tutor Julia Crouch says: “Conflict is the root of all drama. In no genre is this more apparent than crime fiction. Fill your story with conflict – the obstacles standing in the way of your protagonist, the conflicts inside their head, their moral/ethical conflicts, the opposition of other characters, the opposing forces of the setting, the weather, the broken-down car, the bad sex, the drinking, oh, the drinking. Make their life as difficult as possible, then make it just a bit worse.”
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8. Surprise your reader
This may sound obvious if not simple, but readers’ appetites for crime fiction have always been large, and it’s only ever grown. This means that the more simplistic plots will fail to grab and grip readers because they’ll probably see it coming – or be disappointed if your story had a straightforward end. Simple won’t sell.
Contemporary crime is packed full of twists, so you will have to plot intricate and complex narratives that deliver twists and surprises at every turn – while also remaining entirely plausible.
Getting this right is one of the most challenging aspects of writing crime fiction. While it is easier to describe, it is harder to plan the mystery, hide it from view and eek out the clues bit by bit, with just the right amount of misdirection for the reader.
One way of tackling this is to define a key clue discovered in each chapter and, where possible, make each clue lead to the next. If your clues lead from one to another, disrupt this rhythm with a surprise clue from a subplot. Take your protagonist on a goose chase. Or make them think they’re on a goose chase when they’re not.
Take care not to just pack your plot with twists for the sake of it. Twists should be because of the plot and serve the plot – don’t rely on them. Great crime writing also comes from building suspense, tension and mystery.
9. Don’t use victims and violence as plot devices
There have been many criticisms leveled at crime writers – especially within TV and film – for using victims and violence (including sexual violence) simply as plot devices to move the story forwards. Rather than sympathetic people with complex backstories, victims are too often introduced simply to develop the perpetrator. This reduces the victim to voiceless and passive, unable to reflect on what’s happening to them. We see the crime through the criminal’s eyes – the physical, the tangible – but don’t feel it from the victim’s point of view. We miss out on the power of a well-developed victim-type character – not just the physical pain inflicted, but the emotional. The before, during and after for both criminal and victim.
10. Do your research
Crime can be a tricky genre to write as most of us aren’t forensics experts, lawyers, police officers or murderers. We’ve never worked a case, arrested anyone, seen a dead body or (hopefully) killed anyone.
So, how can we create a rich, real and convincing story in a world we don’t know well?
This is also a challenge as many of our readers will be avid crime readers, and be able to feel the cracks in our story if it’s not solid.
Research is the key. Ensure that you understand any key aspects of your story. It can be valuable to read around the subject matter: non-fiction books about murderers, crime, political intrigue and espionage. For example:
- The limits of forensics
- How DNA works… and doesn’t
- How the legal system works, from warrants and arrests through to trials and sentencing
- How the police works, from ranks and departments to internal politics and procedures
- The crime scene. How do the police work a crime scene, from clothes and equipment to who gets access?
- What happens to bodies when they’re cut, shot and killed?
- How do murderers think? There are many types of murder and so there are many types of murderer. How does yours think? What’s their motivation and is it realistic?
- Most of us can use a mobile phone, but do you understand how various computer hacks work? Or how certain technologies are used to find and track criminals?
Research will help you not only ensure your story is realistic and accurate, but will help you add the details that make it rich and convincing. Maybe, your whole story will hang on such a detail.
Research is also a great source of inspiration. In the course of sitting in the public gallery at your local court or watching real police press conferences you might be struck with an idea you haven’t seen explored yet, or just one that you’d be excited to explore.
Just be sure not to data-dump your findings in an effort to convince your reader that you know about police dog units or how chloroform works. It needs to be accurate not exhaustive. Never forget that you’re writing for your reader’s gut, not their brain. While the plot should stand up to scrutiny, technical detail shouldn’t overwhelm, slow down or distract from a yipping yarn.
Crime writer Fiona Barton says:
“The research period for my psychological thrillers has been long. More than 30 years, if I’m honest. I suppose you could say that my whole career as a journalist has been an apprenticeship for the Domestic Noir genre.
“As a reporter, I was watching and listening to people caught up in dramas, tragedies and conflicts. I squirreled away characters, snippets of conversations, encounters, the emotions I felt covering difficult stories. And when I came to write fiction, I had the best imaginable cast of characters to draw on – my own internal archive.
“I’ve revisited themes I wrote about in newspapers, themes that hit me hard. The issue of online child sexual abuse is a strong thread in The Widow and is based on my own investigations and research. I used real quotes from interviews I conducted with a group of men accused of accessing this vile pornography, including this defence: ‘They’re not really kids in those pictures. They’re women who look really young and dress up as kids for a living. Some of them are really in their thirties’.
“Those words still make me shudder, even now.”
“For my second novel, The Child and my third, The Suspect I have delved deeper into the world of journalists. I wanted to give a clear-eyed vision of what it is to be a news reporter on the road, and have used my own experiences and memories to people the newsroom and bring to life the cast for the story. It feels a bit like coming home when I write these sections.
“But, of course, like any good newspaper investigation, I need experts to make the whole story authentic – the pathologist who can walk you through a post-mortem on an embalmed body, the forensic scientist willing to show you how DNA can turn something on its head, the detective who quietly corrects your schoolgirl errors in police procedure…
“I talk to my contacts – the brilliant retired Murder Squad detective DCI Colin Sutton and Home Office pathologist Dr Debbie Cook – during early stages of writing to make sure the crucial plotlines cooking in my head are possible. And at the end of the first draft, they read the manuscript and make sure I’ve got the technical detail right. I’m learning all the time…
“I’m just beginning the research for my fourth book. It features a character in her seventies who has been in a wheelchair since she was 21, so I have tracked down women who went through Stoke Mandeville Hospital spinal unit in the 1960s. I want to know what it meant to them to be young and paralysed, how they were treated, how they coped with the indignities, what made them laugh, cry, howl with rage. How they squared up to life.
“Some of the tales are hair-raising, some devastating. Not all will be used this time but all will be filed away in my internal archive to join the tiny fragments of information that can startle, amaze and make your story sing.”
11. Create flawed heroes
Perfect people don’t make for interesting characters and it’s hard to think of a flawless personality from the fiction greats, from Mr Brocklehurst to Harry Potter.
Your characters need weaknesses to make them rich and relatable. It also gives you the opportunity to send them on a journey of realization and/or change.
Crime and noir is littered with fantastically flawed characters, struggling with their own demons that help readers empathise with their plight – hoping they might overcome their weakness. Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detectives are often alone because they are unable to love, while Harlon Coben’s recurring detective Myron Bolitar feels too much.
What is your protagonist’s flaw? Are they:
Why do they have this flaw, where did it come from? How does it affect their life and the people around them? What would be the solution?
Note: Avoid well-worn cliches unless you can bring something new to the trope. For example, alcoholics, drug addicts and those on the autistic spectrum.
Now raise the stakes by putting your protagonist at risk. What are those stakes? Emotional, physical? What’s on the line? Their job, their partner, their sanity, their life? High stakes will make your protagonist active as they try to fight against the odds to achieve their goal.
It is important to note that your protagonist should still be a hero – at least to others. Let your reader know why they’re the hero of your novel. Did they simply solve the crime, win the case and get the killer? Or did they change in some fundamental way? Did they win against their demons? Did they make a sacrifice to do the right thing?
National Centre for Writing crime course tutor Nicola Upson says: “For me, the most important issue between me and my characters is not whether I like them or not, but whether I can empathise with how they feel and what they’ve done. If I can’t, I shouldn’t be writing about them. It’s essential to get yourself into the mindset of your characters, to write for them, not about them, and for the crime novels I write – which deal exclusively with murder – I have to believe myself capable of taking a life. No one is black and white, but it’s not my job to judge or condone my characters; it’s my job to get under their skin and show you why they do what they do.”
Killers and criminals
What makes a compelling killer? One we hate and fear. One that makes us want them locked up, killed or met with revenge. Here are some tips:
- Make the killer powerful in some way
- Make their crimes make sense to them
- Show their motivation (though not always at the beginning).
Your killer will not be your hero, but we enjoy complex and conflicted criminals. Why does your criminal do what they do? While not necessarily justifying their crimes, show the reader what drives them – complex criminals compelled by things in their own unpleasant past. It is interesting to note that ‘baddies’ often see themselves as the good guys. What is their motivation and why does it make sense to them? Do they have an internal struggle? What emotions drive their actions?
Think of these infamous killers; what is their motivation? What is their power and their weakness?
- Hannibal Lecter
- Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)
- Norman Bates.
And don’t limit yourself to fictional killers for inspiration. Do the same exercise for these real killers:
- Aileen Wuornos
- John Wayne Gacy
- Harold Shipman
- Myra Hindley
- Geoffrey Dahmer.
These lists are, of course, famous serial killers, but what about the hitmen and the one-offs, the people who kill by accident, as a means to an end, or commit crimes of passion?
12. Characters: focus on interesting, not likeable
National Centre for Writing crime course tutor Julia Crouch says: “Your characters don’t have to be likeable, they just have to be interesting. They could be charming; they could be so dull they are fascinating; they could be so evil they are car-crash watchable. You keep the reader onside by the language your characters use, the things they do, the way they do them, the way people around them react to them. The aim is to get the reader, despite their higher self, siding with your psychopath (e.g. Hannibal Lecter).
“On the subject of cats, the Hollywood trope is that if you have a character who is going to do something abominable in the second act, in order to get the audience behind them, have them save a cat from a careering truck in the first: instant hero.”
13. Dialogue: keep it real
National Centre for Writing crime course tutor Nicola Upson says: “Dialogue can make or break a piece of fiction. The way a character speaks can say as much about them as what they are actually saying – and what they don’t say is also important, particularly in a crime story. It varies according to character and situation, but a couple of simple rules apply: never write something you wouldn’t say; and less is more – never give your character an absurdly detailed sentence just because there’s something you need your reader to know. Always read your dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds authentic.”
14. Use location and setting as a character
Bring your story to life by giving your location a personality.
- Is the city dark and grimy, a decaying relic riddled with vice and corruption?
- Does the chocolate-box village give a misleading picture of what lies beneath?
- Does the suburban street promise security but deliver death?
What does the location look like, smell like, sound like, feel like? And how does this affect the characters? What are its key features? Buildings, weather, volcanoes, darkness. Who lives in this place?
Create an atmosphere in which your crime happens and that your characters inhabit. What is their relationship to it? Are they desperate to leave? Or does it promise the life they always wanted? Are they able to leave if they wanted?
National Centre for Writing crime course tutor Nicola Upson says:
“99% of crime writers flout that golden rule ‘write what you know’. Most of us are lucky enough not to have personal experience of violent death or other crimes, but we have to convince a reader that our stories mirror life, and it’s vital that setting, character and plot work together to create a tangible reality. For me, the starting point of a book is always its sense of place: whether a location is real or imaginary, I want the reader to breathe the same air as my characters, to live in the rooms that they chose the furniture for. Setting affects the mood of the book and the people who live there, it roots clues firmly in the minutiae of daily life – and it should be a character in its own right.”
15. Avoid first-person narrative
Many people are drawn to writing in the first person, as it’s an effective way for a reader to identify with the protagonist. Writers can really get inside a character’s head when he or she is the one directly telling the story.
However, this approach has many disadvantages when it comes to plotting.
If the story is told from the point of view of a single character, every notable event in the book has to happen while the character is present. The only alternative is for this to be relayed to them by another character.
One way around this might be to use the first person in some chapters – those that focus on the protagonist – while other chapters are from or more characters’ points of view. This ensures that the reader can be a few steps ahead of the main characters while still seeing the world through their eyes.
Having said that, you should never lose sight of the fact that you’re targeting the reader’s gut, not their brain. The plot should stand up to scrutiny, but the technical work should never overwhelm the desire to tell a good story.
16. Introduce the gun in the first act
“If there’s a rifle hanging on the wall in the first act, it will be fired in the third act.” Anton Chekhov.
This header covers a few things:
Write your first draft, and revise to make sure it’s solid. It may be that you get to a stage where you realise you need to introduce a person/weapon/fact earlier. Go back once you’ve finished your first draft and weave it in.
While this may sound obvious, you can also use this principle as misdirection to throw your readers off the scent. You may use a ‘bigger rifle on the wall’ to hide the knife you also introduced.
National Centre for Writing crime course tutor Julia Crouch also cites Chekhov when she writes: “‘One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep’. Every sentence you write, ask yourself, does this advance my story? If so, how? If so, can I make it better? Weave the cause and effect right into the heart of your novel.
“Conversely, don’t just let the gun appear. Use it to build a sense of threat, of foreboding. Make it so the reader will not be able to forget that gun in the corner of the room (and no, the way to do this is not to keep mentioning it). Want to up the tension? Give your character a kitten they need to look after as you put them into their most challenging situation.”
17. Use character beats
Crime and thrillers are all about action, but it’s easy to forget that character beats are important and powerful. Yes, we want our readers to be compelled to turn the page to peel back the next layer of the onion, but we shouldn’t forget that all of the action is happening to someone – a person, a character – and we need to bring them to life or our reader won’t care.
Take time for your key characters to reflect on what’s happening: what they want to achieve and, importantly, what’s holding them back.
As well as reflection and contemplation, they may be doing something mundane or talking to a side character about something that sparks an idea, makes them realise something or communicates something important to the reader.
18. Plan a watertight plot
More than most genres, crime stories need watertight plotting, because the devil is so often in the details and crime readers won’t tolerate plot holes. Some writers (‘pantsers’ or ‘gardeners’) can just work from a single idea or character to create a great story. This will be a challenge for most crime writers, where plot is central. This makes crime and thriller plots complex. And increasingly so: crime plots have layers of subterfuge, misdirection and twists which are hard to think up and drop in at the end. For example, writers will usually know whodunnit before they begin.
Many crime writers start with detailed timelines and spreadsheets with chapter breakdowns that detail exactly what is said, done and revealed (or not) in each one. This helps you to see the bird’s-eye view of your story and plot – checking that it holds together. It also allows you to manage the layers of the onion – for example, inserting ‘the rifle on the wall’ – at the beginning so you don’t have to worry about it when you write.
That said, if and when you do come up against something you hadn’t thought of (something you might need to introduce earlier on), keep track. Having your plot broken down and planned will make it easier to thread this person/fact/weapon into the relevant places.
This is particularly useful for more complex thrillers and those with multiple sub-plots.
National Centre for Writing crime course tutor Nicola Upson says: “Some writers map out the path of a story before they start, others just see where it takes them. Whichever way you do it, structure – the way you present your story to the reader – is crucial. There are two levels of reality going on in most crime fiction: what the reader is learning page by page and what you – the author – know and are keeping to yourself.”
Booker-longlisted author Robert Edric took a break from writing literary novels to create a crime trilogy set in Hull. He explained that “When I’m working on a literary novel it’s less important to me whether I write a, then d, g , x then e. The meaning of the book might be in the middle. The goal is not the end, but whether it fails or succeeds in your own mind. With a crime novel, you’re less organic. There has to be a logical process.”
19. Series or stand-alone?
Decide early on if you’re writing a series or a stand-alone. Don’t introduce a great character only to kill them off at the end of the first book of a series.
20. Build backstory
Character backstory helps readers understand who a person is and why they are the way they are, why they do what they do. This means you can avoid simply explaining why they’re doing what they’re doing when they do it – boring! Let the reader make the association between the abuse of their childhood with their crimes, or the unsolved murder of their husband with their distrust of authority.
This also helps to bring peripheral and walk-on characters to life, from the postman to the waitress.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to create a detailed backstory and explore every aspect of their early life. A few lines or even a sentence can help to frame a character and what they do:
- “It reminded the postman of his own father’s drinking”
- “Liz liked the book, and not just because it reminded her of her doctorate degree”
- “It would be hard to talk to the girl’s father, bringing back too many memories of his own daughter’s death that had laid buried underneath decades of denial.”
21. Avoid cliché
Unpredictability is more important in crime than many other genres. The clue is in the name ‘mystery’, ‘whodunnit?’. A thriller would be less thrilling if you knew the outcome, and clichés make books more predictable.
Consider avoiding the following cliches (some of which we’ve already mentioned):
- Heroes with drink/drug problems
- Obsessions with particular types of music
- Gender stereotypes such as the prim and proper female character who eventually caves to the male protagonist’s charms
- The genius crime-solver who is rubbish with humans – the maverick loner
- And similarly, the wacky, funny sidekick who can’t stand the sight of blood
- Similar again, the brilliant serial killer
- Cops from broken families
- Murderer monologues in which they describe exactly why they did it
- Some personal link between the detective and the murderer
- The partner who has to have everything explained to them
- The hard-ass police chief
- Car chases and shoot outs
- The estranged wife/daughter/parent
- The young female they underestimated
- (Middle-aged) men who are irresistible to (young) women.
Of course, some elements will be hard to avoid, so, if you do want to include something that has been used frequently, ensure you can bring some
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